The attraction of old-school rape-revenge films like The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave wasn't the rape, it was the over-the-top revenge—the chain-sawing, the electrocuting, the inventive penis-severings. None of these things crop up in Promising Young Woman, a debut feature by English writer-director Emerald Fennell. This is too bad, because what we have here is a pretty good picture that could have used some cheap thrills and righteous violence.
The movie has several things to recommend it, starting with a marvelously chilled-out star performance by Carey Mulligan as the rape-avenger Cassie Thomas. Cassie and her best friend Nina Fisher were once in med school together, but both dropped out after Nina was raped at a party and subsequently couldn't find anyone to believe her harrowing tale. Nina is long-dead now—possibly a suicide—but Cassie, who currently works as a waitress in a coffee shop, is continuing her years-long campaign to visit payback upon her late friend's rapist—and, in the process, to also put the fear of God into other men who make a practice of preying on women.
Cassie does this by visiting a different nightclub every weekend, pretending to be blind drunk, and then going home with the first guy who comes on to her. Back at the guy's apartment, she shrugs off her drunk act and…well, you might hope to see her feasting on the entrails of these creeps, but no. What she actually does, in the one confrontation we witness, is deliver a blast of sarcasm ("You woke me up before putting your fingers inside me—that was sweet") and then lecture the creep about how he should change his ways. This seemed to me to be insufficiently savage. (There's a suggestion, in another scene, that she sometimes dispenses bloodier justice, but alas, we don't see her doing it.)
Cassie also lights up three people with tangential connections to Nina's rape. One of them is a lawyer named Jordan (Alfred Molina in a quietly moving performance), who was responsible for destroying Nina's credibility and is now wracked with shame about it. Cassie also confronts her old med-school dean, Elizabeth Walker (Connie Britton), who dismissed Nina's rape charge back in the day, and now doesn't even remember her (although she does remember Nina's rapist, a cool guy named Al Monroe). "What would you have me do," Walker asks Cassie, "ruin a young man's life every time we heard an accusation like this?" (A later creep describes this possibility as "every guy's worst nightmare, getting accused like that." To which Cassie replies, "Can you guess what every woman's worst nightmare is?"
Cassie also approaches an old classmate named Madison (Alison Brie), who didn't believe Nina's rape story at the time either, but who subsequently came into possession of a video of the assault taken by one of Monroe's friends. Madison gives this video to Cassie, who comes up with a gratifyingly nasty use for it.
The movie isn't a feminist tract, but it makes all the familiar and undeniable points. After kicking off with a montage of male crotches (clothed), it shows us a trio of men in a bar complaining about the fact that they're no longer allowed to hire strippers for office parties and—casting an eye at a wasted woman passing out on a nearby banquette—repeating the well-known truth that she must be "just askin' for it." The director's story makes clear allusions to some real-life cases, like the 2015 Stanford University rape in which the perpetrator, a promising young man named Brock Turner, got off with serving three months in jail, and the 2014 University of Virginia rape case that was turned into a cover story by Rolling Stone magazine and was later revealed to be a hoax. (Alluding to this event would seem to undermine the movie's aim).
There's one good guy in the film—another med-school friend of Cassie's whose name is Ryan (Bo Burnham, radiating charm). He seems likely to rescue Cassie from her obsession with Nina's rape and before long they start a relationship. (We see them in one of those old-fashioned young-lovers montages dancing around a pharmacy to the strains of the Paris Hilton song "Stars Are Blind.") It feels like a ray of romantic promise. By the time the very dark ending arrives, we realize that this isn't a movie designed to reward anyone's high hopes.